Actual slow travel is better than watching a long train journey on TV

In recent weeks we've seen the surprising success of SBS TV's experimentation with the Slow TV genre. They've screened three and 17 hour versions of their documentary on The Ghan rail journey from Adelaide to Darwin.

The three hour 'director's cut'  was the station's highest rating program for the past year. The popularity of the three hours was such that they broadcast the 17 hour version the following weekend. Perhaps they will even try for 54 hours, which is the actual length of the journey.

But it's one thing to watch a long slow train journey on TV, and another to actually do it.

About this time last year, I was at Strathfield station in Sydney and saw an ad for NSW Trains Discovery Pass. I bought one the next day.

For $550 first class and $420 economy, the ticket allows six months travel on NSW country trains and buses that travel north to Brisbane, west to Broken Hill and south as far as Melbourne. I did one trip from Sydney to Brisbane, one from Sydney to the Gold Coast hinterland, one to Albury, and about four day trips to Canberra.

Friends thought I was a bit odd. Most people write off long distance rail travel in Australia because it's 'too slow'. But for me, slow is the best way to go if I can make the time to do it.

I think most people can if they really want to and make it a priority. Those who say they don't have the time to do such things probably pack too much into their busy lives and can't see the wood for the trees. They're the people who don't have the time to read novels.

Those who only have time for travel by air, or fast trains overseas, will never get to take in the meditative experience of the gradual change of landscape and vegetation over many hours and days. For me it is the equivalent of a religious retreat, and Australia's lack of enterprise in not building fast trains can be construed as a virtue.

Slow travel can also take the form of a long drive.

I discovered that it awakened something deep inside of me in 2003 when I drove from the east to the west coast of Australia. I had always wanted to do it because it's a thing many Australians 'must' do once in their life, just as Muslims go to Mecca.

The drive across Australia was such a peak experience for me that six months later I was off on a driving holiday through the wide open spaces of the USA.

I flew into San Jose and drove through the California Desert and along the old Route 66 to the Texas pan handle. I then went north towards Wyoming and Montana before returning to San Jose from Washington state close to the west coast. Around 9000 kilometres.

I also enjoy very long distance slow bus trips. In 2015, I took a bus for 25 hours through the windswept terrain in southern Peru between Lima and the Chilean border town of Arica. Then a day or so later I travelled in another bus for around 32 hours, through the Atacama desert - the world's driest - to the city of Valparaiso, not far from the capital Santiago.

Of course I do 'drop in' travel as well. But there's nothing like taking lots of time to reach a destination. Or not having a destination at all, which was actually the case when I set out from Albury for my 2003 road trip that ended up taking me as far as Meekatharra in Western Australia.

Who really killed confession?

Amidst the negative publicity the Sacrament of Confession received after last Friday's release of the Child Abuse Royal Commission final report, one positive moment stood out for me.

It was the religious broadcaster Noel Debien making a personal allusion on Friday evening on ABCTV's The Drum discussion panel. He 'outed' himself as a practising Catholic who goes to Confession.

He was suggesting that his practice of the faith, including Confession, was a means of enrichment in his life. That struck a chord with me and I felt that I too would like to go to Confession when the opportunity presents itself. But on my own terms.

I think that most Catholics have stayed away from Confession for decades because the thought of it has made them feel small and unworthy. Good on them.

It's not dissimilar to the dynamic of sexual abuse, which made its victims feel small. It is part of what critics of the Church see as a power play that is designed to tighten the screws of the institution's psychological grip on its faithful.

But it needn't be the Church at its worst. Confession can offer a pathway to wholeness and growth. 'I can and want to be a better person.' Who does not have that aspiration in their life?

The good news is that ethical and moral virtue is within our grasp.

I felt this yesterday during a phone call with a friend who is a spiritual mentor in another context of my life. We were discussing the Royal Commission report and Confession and my sense of how cathartic it can be when done right.

As if to demonstrate my point, I mentioned some of my actions from last week that I wasn't particularly proud of. I manifest them to him and owned them. Then, right on cue, I felt I'd taken a step up the ladder towards virtue nirvana. I'd become more whole as a person.

I questioned why the Church cannot seem to give us that experience.

After Vatican II, it was on the right track when it renamed Confession the 'Sacrament of Reconciliation'. It was as if it was offering us our own personal truth and reconciliation commission. The kind of thing they have when they want to right wrongs and make a fresh start in countries where there have been human rights abuses.

Then came the pullback of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. It reverted to Confession and the rhetoric once again implied the play in which the Church and its officials make us feel small and that this is somehow for our own good. They killed it.

When church teaching says Confession should be killed off

As a junior bishop during the Church's World Youth Day in 2008, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher angered many when he suggested that raising historic cases of child sexual abuse amounted to 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds'.

Nine and a half years later, he's made another statement that is memorable for the wrong reasons. At his media conference following yesterday's release of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said that 'killing off confession is not going to help anybody'.

He was responding to the Commission's recommendation that a new law be passed to require priests to report cases of child sexual abuse that they learn about while administering the sacrament of confession. Such a law would conflict with the 'seal of confession' of the Church's own canon law.

Archbishop Fisher fears it would 'kill' confession. But Melbourne canon lawyer Ian Waters suggested last night to viewers of ABCTV's The Drum that priests hearing confession have infinite room to move pastorally and that there are means of ensuring abuse is reported to police without necessarily breaking the seal. Where there's a will there's a way was his message.

If a priest did find himself breaking the seal, he would easily find reassurance from Pope Francis himself. Francis has become well known for his insistence that the imposition of church law and doctrine must be qualified by a demonstration of love and mercy towards those who are most vulnerable.

Ten years before Francis became Pope in 2013, the leader of the Australian Jesuits Father Mark Raper made clear to viewers of the ABC's 7.30 Report his view that the Church as an institution is less important than the people it cares for.

Responding to the suggestion that rejecting legal advice by apologising to a child sex abuse victim would be costly to the Church in terms of financial compensation, he said: 'Well, the assets are not as important as the people that we seek to serve. What is the point of doing what we're doing if that's not the case?'

Yesterday my thoughts turned to the principle of 'subsidiarity', which is the bottom line of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity, which is most commonly applied to workers' rights, insists that any regulation of economic and social affairs must give priority to the dignity and rights of individual persons.

The principle of subsidiarity is not usually mentioned in the context of sacramental theology. But for me, it's enough to give confidence that 'killing off confession' is justified if the dignity and rights of sex abuse victims are at stake.


Links: Waters | Raper | Subsidiarity

 

Mothballing the clerical collar will help prevent clergy sexual abuse

About 15 years ago, I was editing the Catholic Church's online news service CathNews when stories about clerical sexual abuse were beginning to appear in significant numbers.

It was usually difficult to find a photograph or other visual image to illustrate the abuse stories. But eventually I settled on one generic image that I felt would suit all of them. It was a plain and simple graphic depicting a priest's clerical collar.

I recall that we stopped using it following representations from more than one bishop.

The first was a gentle plea. We were tarnishing the good name of the clergy and damaging the reputation of the Church. Then came the more heavy handed 'cease and desist' order that gave us no choice.

There had been no protracted deliberation involved in my choice of the image. Like a lot of decisions editors made on the run, it was intuitive. But in hindsight - as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wraps up - it seems prescient.

I say this after seeing this week's issue of the email newsletter from Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of its headlines was extracted from a story published in the National Catholic Reporter in the US: 'Australian bishop urges end to clericalism'.

The article features the views of Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta based on a talk he gave in August that was published in the December issue of the National Council of Priests newsletter The Swag. It points to the culture of clericalism as a major cause of sexual abuse.

'In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model...which promotes the superiority of the ordained. ... Abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered.'

It is often possible to know a priest's views about power and privilege in the Church simply by looking to see if he is wearing a clerical collar. In many circumstances, priests will make a deliberate choice whether or not to wear the collar, knowing its symbolic power.

I remember being a Jesuit novice in the late 1970s and the intense speculation about which of us would choose to wear a clerical collar rather than a suit, when we took our first vows at the end of the two year noviceship.

In retrospect, I think it was the most powerful statement we could make concerning whether we believed we were entering a life of power and privilege or one of service.

Indeed I can now suggest with confidence that an attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely.

I think it's now time for the Church to consider mothballing the clerical collar. This would be a fitting follow up to Bishop Vincent Long's suggestion that 'we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture ... of power and control that has been our cultural captivity'.


Link: newsletter

Tribalism and Australian marriage equality

This morning I was listening to a podcast from US National Public Radio on the topic 'word of the year'. The commentator Geoff Nunberg chose 'tribalism' as his word of the year and focused his explanation on the politics of identity.

I've been thinking a lot about tribalism this year, trying to decide whether it's a good or bad thing. Nunberg says people often 'use "tribal" to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty' and that this can lead society to become 'fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy'.

At various moments of the debate on same sex marriage in Australia, I could see this kind of 'we are right you are wrong' attitude on both sides. So I was heartened that the 'yes' case supporters in the public gallery of Parliament House chose 'I am Australian' when they broke into song after the vote was passed last Thursday.

The song's refrain - 'we are one, but we are many' - specifically recognises the legitimacy of tribes beyond our own. It implicitly affirms identities that are centred around many commonalities including gender and sexual preference. Thursday's cause for celebration was the successful passage of the bill that meant our nation's marriage law would now include identities it had previously excluded.

In the lead up to the postal survey, I found it interesting to read an article in The Conversation identifying tribes within the GLBTI community that were notably unenthusiastic about voting 'yes'.

These groups were composed of predominantly older GLBTI people who were proudly countercultural. They feared that marriage 'would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy'.

As I understood it, these groups were not denying the legitimacy of GLBTI people wanting to get married. They just hoped that equal marriage supporters would return the favour and recognise the legitimacy of their rejection of marriage as a lifestyle choice. I believe that they got their wish, at least to the extent that they did not suffer criticism from the 'yes' supporters.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it has to be argued that the majority of bishops supported a position that exemplifies the negative characterisation I quoted above. That is a non-recognition of the distinction between solidarity and blind loyalty that leads to a denial of the legitimacy of those with opposing views.

It was therefore gratifying that so many Catholics followed the lead of the few bishops who advocated a vote according to conscience on what they insisted was in any case a secular matter. This turned out to be a demonstration of the good that can exist in tribalism - solidarity and qualified loyalty.


Links: Nunberg | The Conversation

Parisian attitude that is nurturing

It's time to return to Sydney after being in Paris for most of October and November. Somebody asked me if I felt I could stay longer or if it was time to move on.

I said that I was looking forward to being back in Australia but pleased that I am coming back here in three or four months time. I went on to explain that life for me is not complete in Sydney and neither is it complete here in Paris. But between the two cities it is.

Tuilleries

I'm very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to establish myself in two cities. I believe it's important that we all use our imagination and resources to seize the opportunities and challenges that our circumstances offer.

I think it's about finding an equilibrium in my state of being, which is something we all need. The term sure-footed comes to mind. I feel that I am excessively sure-footed in Sydney and not at all sure-footed in Paris.

Lego ptisserie at Les Halles

People face this kind of challenge in various ways. Some establish themselves in their professions and social circles, and then they welcome children into their lives even though they know it will upturn their established order. Others don't have children and look to extend themselves in different ways.

I find it easiest to write these letters when I feel there is order in my life. That is why they've been few and far between during these two months.

Here my energies are focused on tasks such as getting the right pieces of paper that will allow me to establish accounts with the electricity utility and the bank. My bank account works but I still have to jump through one more hoop before the debit card they sent me will work in ATMs and supermarkets.

Performance art exhibition at Richelieu Library

Years ago I used to hear it said that the French are rude and unhelpful. My experience has been the opposite. I have found them nurturing.

I remember telling a shop assistant that I did not need a bag. I said 'pas sac', and he corrected me by indicating that 'pas de sac' is how it's said. His tone was nurturing, not a put down. That experience was repeated multiple times, most recently when the woman at the Bastille Market told me I wanted 'une carotte', not 'un carotte', which is how I'd put my request.

I feel affirmed by these exchanges, and each is a small step towards becoming more sure-footed in my new surrounds.

Jewelled slippers

Years ago I remember feeling small after an offhand remark from a guide at the United Nations building in New York City.

'Is this where you get to see how the UN works?', I asked, stating the obvious because that's what came into my head. 'That's the general idea' was his put down response, which reflected the kind of attitude that I'd grown up expecting to get from the French.

The value of intransigence in Paris fairyland

This morning a Facebook alert welcomed me to Paris, four weeks to the day since my arrival.

I've easily engaged with the fairyland version of Paris that the tourists come to see. I have come to see that as well.

Paris market venue Place of the Innocents

But on Saturday, I walked past the shopfront of the Parti Socialiste and was reminded that the main reality is something else. The rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people visible on the streets are part of a society increasingly divided into haves and have nots. Just like Australia.

I can't understand much about French politics when I watch the news on TV, as I imagine the French scratch their heads when they hear about the possible fall of Australia's government because some of its members are dual citizens of another country.

Sign in the window of Parti Socialiste Paris

But I did get a sense of it when my vendor put me in touch with a young Ukrainian-Russian immigrant who was passionate about politics. I enjoyed the conversations we had when we visited bars on two occasions before he returned to his family in a village near Lyon.

In our discussions, we discovered that we shared a lot of common ground. We bemoaned the fact that nations across Europe - and also Russia - were becoming increasingly divided because their governents were catering more for entrenched elites than the good of the whole.

From the Louvre - Louis Lopold Boilly 1761-1845 People Entering to See a Free Show at the Ambigu-Comique Theatre
But I didn't like what I heard when I asked him who he supported in this year's French election and he said Marine Le Pen.

When I spent my first weekend in Lille, I admired my Australian friend for choosing an immigrant neighbourhood to buy an apartment for his part-time residence in France, even though I did not feel safe walking the streets.

He could have opted for something smaller in a more salubrious part of Paris. Like me. But I assume he was following the principles of the Catholic workers movement that he has been involved in and is the subject of his academic study.

Wall in Rue Foyatier Monmartre

My contact with reality has more to do with getting connected to the utilities and services that will allow me to live here part-time. On Friday I walked 40 minutes to the nearest shop of the majority state owned electricity company EDF. But they were closed, having had Thursday and Friday added to Wednesday's All Saints Day public holiday to make a five day long weekend.

I was consoled when it reminded me of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 'old Europe' insult when France refused to sign up for the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a sign that America had not completely exported its 'can do' culture to France.

Be Loud Be Proud wall art Paris

I think that, despite the frustrations, there is something to like about intransigence that weakens productivity but upholds the rights and conditions of the ordinary people whose efforts achieve it.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité and inferior coffee

A friend referred to the image of Parisians 'smoking Gauloises and reading Le Monde with their coffee and croissant'. I've always been fascinated by the portrayals of Parisian cafe culture, especially in the French New Wave movies of the 1960s, which are more concerned with atmosphere than story.

But the reality is now different. In 2017 you don't see Gauloises packets because French cigarettes now come with olive green plain packaging like Australia's, and Parisians look at smartphones rather than newspapers just like people everywhere.

Night time crowd around Fountain of the Innocents

I'm reluctant to make too many observations, as they will be superficial and inconclusive because of the short time I've been here. I've also been consumed by mundane activities such as getting a bank account and an insurance policy. However it's arguable that consumer norms and practices tell you more about a country than just about anything else.

However I do notice signs that there are values worth noting and prizing. Among the magazine posters on the sides of the kiosks in public places, the more prominent are promoting specialist titles on subjects including philosophy, psychology and sophisticated political satire (Charlie Hebdo).

There is obviously a market for these things, or the posters wouldn't be there. They have equal billing with sport and gossip that are more dominant in other countries. It's probably true that Parisians sitting together in cafes are more likely to be discussing philosophy than Australians. But I'd suggest that most don't, and that it's effectively confined to a niche, albeit a much larger one than in Australia.

Square in front of Sorbonne University

One of my favourite places to loiter is the square in front of the Sorbonne University (pictured), with its philosophy bookshops and cafes. Twice when I've been there I've noticed film crews recording interviews with learned professor types probably discussing philosophy.

There are certain things we want to believe that are not entirely true. Philosophy is in fact discussed in cafes around universities in Australia, and the cafe culture in Sydney and Melbourne is also vibrant. It also has to be said that the coffee is far superior to that in Paris, which is notably underwhelming.

But I like it that learning and human rights and open discussion seem to be a valued, along with good food and dress.

Libert galit fraternit on public building

The words Liberté, égalité, fraternité adorn French public buildings in the way references to the monarchy are attached to public institutions in the UK and Australia (in Sydney I live near the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital).

When buying my property here, my vendor said to me a few times 'French people don't stand for this kind of thing. They are aware of their rights'. An awareness that could come from philosophy being more in public consciousness.

The good life in Paris might be sustainable

Yesterday was the two week anniversary of my new part-time life in Paris.

I've been absorbed with making my small five square metre room my own. For me that means throwing things out rather than acquiring them. It had most of what I needed but was full of excess bedding and crockery and other space fillers that didn't fit my minimalist aspirations.

Michael in his Paris room

I think the most important thing to do when you're in new surroundings for any length of time is to establish a routine to frame your life and give it some continuity and purpose. To this end, my early morning in-bed activity is to spend about half an hour doing French language exercises with the Duolingo app on my smartphone.

Unfortunately it has displaced writing this letter. But I hope that is temporary and the language work will find some other time slot in my day. The app's 'nag' feature to get users to do the daily exercises is too effective.

I am quite relaxed in my approach to learning the French language, which is really building on the grounding I got at school. Duolingo says I'm 59 per cent of the way there, but I don't think there is a point in which I will be able to say I have acquired French.

Looking from Chatelet towards Eiffel Tower

I get a small thrill when I say something in French and am understood. I like to watch TV with the French subtitles intended for the hearing impaired turned on. More and more I can understand what's going on. They are my 'trainer wheels' and eventually I hope to be able to turn them off.

The other thing that's important to me is the food and the culture.

The front door of my building is less than a minute's walk to the square around the Fountain of the Innocents. Currently it's the location of a two week exposition and market of food from various French regions. On Sunday evening I took the opportunity to sample a dozen snails, which is something I'd always wanted to do.

For me the intensity of the sensation was equal to that of good oysters. I especially like to wrestle with food to get the taste. They give you a small plastic fork for this purpose. One end has a single prong to extract the snail from the shell, while the other has three for eating.

Snails

Every day I go to a patisserie and ask for a 'demi-' (half) baguette. Before coming here, I'd not eaten bread regularly for more than a year. Being white bread, baguettes have almost no nutritional value and too many calories. But I can't resist them - and a cake - each day at the patisserie and boulangerie.

I like to think that this enjoyment of the good life is sustainable, which is why the other part of my routine consists of an ambitious goal of 20,000 steps each day and an hour at the gym in the late afternoon.

My tiny room in the centre of Paris

Years ago I remember a friend telling me that he'd just bought a house in a NSW country town for the price of a car. I've just done something similar with my purchase of a tiny room in the centre of Paris for less than the price of a car parking space in Sydney.

At the end of April, I spent three days staying in an airbnb maid's room near the Luxembourg Gardens. I'd just arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and I was headed to England to spend a month with my sister.

I thought to myself that I would like to own a room like this. I mentioned that in conversation with a friend in Lille who once worked selling real estate in Sydney. He's bought and sold several apartments in France, and he told me that it was easier than I imagined.

So with his help, I found online a five square metre room on the sixth floor of a building without a lift, for sale for 65,000 euros. It's in Châtelet in the First Arrondissement, a few minutes walk from either the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. One of Paris's priciest locations.

I had my offer accepted in late June and signed the final papers and received the key at the notaires' office in Paris on Monday.

The room has a single bed, a shower, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a fridge, a wardrobe, and not much else. Just about all I need.

Five square metres is about the size of the bathroom in most Australian houses. I've stayed in capsule hotels in Japan in the past, and the room I lived in when I spent five weeks in Tokyo around August measured exactly five square metres.

Most buyers would probably classify the property as a renovators' delight. I could spend tens of thousands of euros gutting the room and engaging professionals to transform it into a designer showpiece. But I like it the way it is, at least for now.

It's too small to rent legally, and the low purchase price means I don't have to earn an income from it. I will just spend a few months here each year getting to know Paris, and offer it to friends who don't mind simple accommodation for one person in a ramshackle building.

The notaire was intrigued and described the purchase as 'interesting', the same word an Australian lawyer friend used a couple of months ago. Before I signed, he also warned me of some of the things that could go wrong. For example the Marais - the Paris City Council - could decide that it is too small for human habitation and force me to rent it as a storage room.

It seems it's not wired to make it easy to connect to fast internet. So until I find a better solution than my current 3G mobile phone data plan, my online life will be in the slow lane. Which doesn't have to be a bad thing.